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With the chassis, EV start-ups stick to the basics

New vehicle concepts can be as futuristic as they like, but without a light, strong and cost-effective body structure, they are unlikely to make production. By Freddie Holmes

In 2021, Los Angeles-based start-up Canoo will launch its first vehicle on public roads. With a battery electric powertrain, modular interior and a body shaped like a cannellini bean, it is far from conventional.

Interestingly, the vehicle will not be available through traditional means either, with the start-up offering what it calls an ‘electric vehicle subscription.’ Different cabin configurations will be offered to suit a variety of use cases, be it short urban rides, delivery services or long-distance commutes.

With the company starting from scratch back in 2017, it enlisted the support of a global steel supplier to assist with several key considerations, from the selection of materials to the design and development of the chassis. As Automotive World found out, the importance of having ArcelorMittal on board to assist with one of the most crucial elements of a vehicle cannot be overstated.

Canoo exterior design
ArcelorMittal helped Canoo go from concept to beta product in under two years

To the drawing board

“We literally started with a blank sheet of paper,” recalls Canoo’s Alexi Charbonneau. A structural engineer who has previously worked with Tesla, SpaceX and Faraday Future, he is currently in charge of Skateboard and Cabin activities at Canoo. “We had no legacy data of any kind, so the advantage of working with ArcelorMittal was that they could help us get the right materials to meet all the requirements for crash safety, handling and noise, vibration and harshness (NVH).”

Specifically, Canoo worked closely with ArcelorMittal’s Automotive Application group. This unit is typically involved with an automaker for around five years ahead of its targeted product launch date. Canoo, however, did not have the luxury of a five-year cycle: the team went from an initial concept to a fully designed beta product in just 23 months.

“With a start-up, the speed at which we need to establish a relationship is considerably faster,” noted Bala Krishnan, Director of Automotive Product Applications at ArcelorMittal. “In addition, many start-ups do not have a traditional materials engineering department, so we as a supplier have to act as their materials engineering department and transfer knowledge as quickly as possible.”

Initially, Canoo was simply looking to understand which materials would best suit its needs. It became evident that to meet the ambitious target of launching by 2021, there was only one option that ticked all the boxes: steel.

Making light of alternatives

Today, the majority of light vehicles have steel-intensive designs. The metal is readily available, easy to work with and, in comparison to aluminium, magnesium and composites such as carbon fibre, less expensive to source. Some battery electric vehicle (BEV) manufacturers have experimented with materials that offer greater gross weight savings, but recent trends have broadly shown a return to steel.

Canoo Skateboard design
The chassis is specially designed to support a battery electric powertrain

Canoo’s vehicle, which is currently undergoing testing, is 90% steel. According to ArcelorMittal, this is the highest level of steel content ever used in a BEV. Its ‘skateboard’ chassis, a flat metal structure that houses electric motors at each end, is specially designed to support a battery electric powertrain. This approach is now common across the industry, and represents a major shift from when platforms would be adapted to carry internal combustion engines (ICEs), hybrid-electric powertrains and full battery electric systems.

Visually, an obvious benefit is that space can be opened up in the cabin of the vehicle—a significant plus for a vehicle that is designed to shuttle occupants around in comfort. But from an engineering perspective, the skateboard design brings even more to the table. “Being able to integrate the battery enclosure within the skateboard with steel was one of the key reasons why a considerable amount of weight could be saved,” explained Krishnan. “It also provides good structural protection for the batteries.”

“For us, efficiency is key,” added Charbonneau. “Starting with a clean sheet enabled us to think about making the most out of the platform and eliminate all the redundancies that might be found on a platform that was originally designed for an ICE.”

Steel in the picture

A Californian start-up offering a shared, electric and eventually autonomous shuttle—it all sounds very on trend with the conversation around future mobility. However, an important takeaway is that amid the introduction of new software and electronics, any EV start-up must focus on a strong, light and cost-effective body-in-white (BIW)—all of which can be afforded by steel. Additional benefits in the form of high recyclability and a secure global supply chain only sweeten the deal.

“Despite all of this noise and the rapid transformation in the auto industry, we’ve always believed that as long as there is a physical vehicle that needs to be safe, cost-effective and provides the consumer with the benefits that they are looking for—extra room, longer range, etc.—steel will remain in the picture,” said Krishnan. “In fact, we expect its use to continue growing.”

As things stand, Canoo intends to launch the waiting list for its first vehicle in 2020, which will become available in Los Angeles in 2021. With steel proving a versatile solution for automakers, it is not unlikely that others in the EV space will look to steel for their BEV platforms in future.

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